I was having problems coming up with a topic today — Tolkien? Tremendous trifles a la Chesterton? Tea? — and then a friend of mine posted an article about a Finnish axe on Facebook, and after watching the accompanying video (seven minutes of axe-work!) and reading about the innovations in axe design, I thought that tools might be fun to think about. (I am a terrible wood chopper. I’ve wondered if it was strength or technique I lack; from the discussions on this site, it’s pretty clear that it’s both. I like the idea of the “lever-axe,” however, though I don’t know anything more about it than what is said there.
Kate Beaton, on Hark! a Vagrant!, tells the story of a Japanese man who went to fight a duel on an island. Arriving there, he discovered he had not brought his sword. He therefore used the oar … and won.
That’s a great master, however. A great master doesn’t need the best tools, nor even the right ones; something else is at work. For the rest of us, and great masters when not showing off or seeking the uttermost simplicity, good tools make a huge difference. It’s like being dressed properly for winter (clothing is a different kind of tool, I suppose), which makes all the difference between hypothermia and pleasure. Not being particularly fashion-inclined, I’ve never dressed so poorly as to court hypothermia, but I’ve certainly not always made the right decision in terms of winter clothing. I get cold feet and hands very easily, and that’s no fun. I promised myself this year that I would get good boots for myself this coming winter — especially with the desired smallholding in the distance, this will be increasingly important. Buying a pair of insulated rain boots when I first moved to Halifax — a city prone to cold rains on top of snow in the winter, which means large quantities of slush — was a great investment. Next fall will be boots and a proper winter coat.
In the mean time, I’ve been slowly acquiring lists of what tools I want to get for my One Day House. I’m planning on looking around garage sales and similar over the spring to see what I can pick up on the cheap; other things I’ll keep an eye out for sales. When I bought gardening tools for my summer work, I went for the good-quality secateurs, and what I hope are good-quality loppers. Other items I went for an adequate version until I decide whether I need the higher level or not. The cheaper edger is probably fine for now, pretty as the $90 one was.
As someone who likes to write by hand, a good pen is important. I like to write with a fountain pen, on good paper; it makes everything flow more smoothly, which matters a lot when you’re writing for an hour or two straight. I would love to go for really, really nice fountain pens, but have never gone far above $75 (and they keep going) because I tend to lose them every year or two. On a side note: I’m still puzzled about how I lost the cap to my fountain pen when I was in Oxford last fall: the pen was in my bag, with the cap, and after I’d wandered around the city for a while, I discovered the pen was still in my bag, but now without its cap. I made do with a commandeered cheap pen lid, but it was strange.
I had a long conversation with a friend once about what television she was going to buy. Actually, I mostly listened to her tell me the pros and cons of the two models she was considering. At the end, I said something along the lines of how I would never put that much time and effort into thinking about a television — let alone that much money! — but then realised that I certainly do for new fountain pens. My friend responded that she’d never ever pay more than a few dollars for a pen, certainly not yearn after the $100+ (oh, let’s be honest … $300+) ones I was lusting after. But then she is a huge television buff and watches it a lot, while exercising on the elliptical too; and at the time I was spending around fifteen hours a week writing by hand.
As ever, so much depends. How much are you going to use it? How hard? If you are going to use something a lot, and hard, it makes sense to go for the highest quality you can afford. If you’re not, well … I suppose it depends on the state of your finances and your need to display status. Elaborate kitchens are full of tools meant for display, not for use. I like to cook, so I bought a good knife. That makes a difference.
If your budget doesn’t permit but you still want the good tools (which is me, most of the time) … well, I guess it’s time to make like the grand master, and improvise?